Danica Patrick’s pole winning run came early Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. Patrick, driving in her first full year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for Stewart-Haas Racing, went out eighth and broke the track record.
She and the rest of NASCAR were then forced to sweat it out as 37 other drivers took their shot at the front spot. The only other driver who came close was Jeff Gordon who just missed the pole with a speed less than four hundreds of a second.
In the end Patrick took the top spot for NASCAR’s biggest race the Daytona 500, becoming the first woman to score a pole in the Sprint Cup series.
‘I think more than anything, I heard a stat yesterday, that getting the pole at Daytona is like winning the fourth biggest race,” Patrick said. “For publicity wise it's the Daytona 500, I think the Coke 600, the All Star Race, and then I think it is the Daytona 500 pole.”
The pole for Patrick however is a much bigger accomplishment than for other, male, drivers. The closest any other woman has come to accomplishing such a feat in NASCAR prior to Sunday was in 1977 when Janet Guthrie made two starts from the ninth position at Bristol and Talladega.
“She comes into this with a racing background, with a tremendous amount of exposure, momentum, just popularity that we’ve never seen before,” second place Daytona 500 starter and four time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon said. “Especially from a female driver.”
In what has become a rebuilding year for NASCAR, the sport is debuting new racecars this season, the exposure Sunday’s history making event will bring will only help. However, the Daytona 500 the following Sunday might be the bigger story no matter how the race shakes out.
“I think it will give us a temporary hype,” reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski said. “But every year we come down here and qualifying day seems like the biggest day ever when you do it but when you leave the weekend nobody remembers.”
In the short term the stands at Daytona International Speedway for Sunday’s 55th running of the Daytona 500 should be packed with fans wanting to see Patrick. The story of the first woman ever to start the Daytona 500 from the pole will bring a wider audience not only at the track but on the TV screens as well. The feat has made NASCAR’s biggest race of the season much bigger than anyone in the sport could ever imagine. And it will bring an impact that Patrick is well aware of.
“I’ve had the experience with mothers, fathers, daughters, sons listening to them say the reason why they’re here as a family today is because of me out there,” she said. “Whether it brings the girls out, the guys out, whatever it is, I don’t care. That’s nice to hear.”
“It’s also nice to hear families talk about the fact that a little girl might say ‘but mommy’ daddy, that a girl out there,’” she added. “Then they can have the conversation with their kid about you can do anything you want and being different doesn’t by any means not allow you to follow your dreams. “
The story then isn’t all about a driver winning the top spot for a race, but about a woman who is first and foremost a racer.
“I grew up with good values and good goals,” Patrick said. “I was brought up to be the fastest driver, not the fastest girl. That was instilled in me from the very young, from the beginning.”
While most qualifying stories fade, Sunday’s historic day will be one that will stand out in not only NASCAR but sports history as well. And that fact isn’t lost on Patrick herself.
“I’ve been lucky enough to make history, be the first woman to do many things,” Patrick said. “I really just hope that I don’t stop doing that. We have a lot more history to make. We are excited to do that.”